By Yavor Tarinski
Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
Cities have historically presented humanity with the space within which people could establish life in common on the basis not of blood ties or tribal belonging, but on that of political agreement, solidarity and mutual respect. They provided the spatial environment where democratic politics could emerge and develop. Today, however, this space has been buried beneath suffocating number of layers of bureaucracy, on top of which is the homogenizing Nation-State. In this environment everything essentially democratic is being resisted by the dominant oligarchic institutions, while the logic of large scale and political centralization is being presented as the only option.
The supporters of the current system, or even some of its opponents who have embraced the dominant imaginary, claim that there is nothing of political significance outside of parliaments, nation-state capitals, or even transnational technocratic institutions. By thinking within these parameters, such logic cannot envision a democratic future. At most, it can think of public participation as a mere procedure – like plebiscites or public deliberations – that can be activated from time to time.
But direct democracy is much more than just a set of tools, it is a whole worldview and completely different form of social organization (system). The main difference between it and what we have today is where power is located: today most of the authority is concentrated in institutions that are accessible to tiny segments of society; in a direct democratic setting all power is dispersed among all people through interconnected grassroots institutions (public assemblies, municipal councils, etc.).
From this distinction becomes clear that one has to abandon the current central political stage that promotes the logic of the nation-state and instead aim at the recreation of a genuine public space at community level. Renowned American philosopher and political theorist John Dewey insists that democracy begins at the neighborly community. He links the development of democratic and participatory attitudes in local community discussions. Dewey advocates for the transformation of “every public school” into “social center” where citizens meet to collectively solve social problems.
Cornelius Castoriadis, another important philosopher, underlines that self-government requires the greatest possible decentralization and the institution of grassroots political units on a scale where direct democracy could actually function in an effective way. Direct democracy does not signify democracy conducted by polling or over the telephone lines of television stations, […]. but, rather, the participation of all citizens in the making of all important decisions, and implementation of those decisions, as well as the treatment of current affairs by committees of popularly elected delegates who can always be recalled. […] The size of these grassroots political units should be of the order of, at most, 100,000 inhabitants (the dimension of an average city, a Paris ward, or an agricultural region of around twenty villages). Twenty or thirty of these units would be grouped together in second-level units.
In this way power flows bottom-up, beginning at those levels closest to where we live, slowly moving to wider regional levels via confederal means that allow for sovereignty to be retained at grassroots level. Bookchin underlines this radically democratic dimension of confederalism, by calling for confederations not of nation-states (such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) but of municipalities and of the neighborhoods of giant megalopolitan areas as well as of towns and villages.
It is in this line of thought that the emancipation of urban areas from the grip of bureaucracy is of crucial importance. When the inhabitants of a certain neighborhood or complex of buildings manage to institute a radically different mode of collective co-existance, then the self-managed units, of which Castoriadis speaks, begin to emerge.
First of all, in such cases a public space for the practice of authentic politics is being opened: a spatial dimension that allows citizens to directly participate in the shaping and management of the institutions that maintain social life. The range of issues that each and every one of the inhabitants has to position and co-decide upon extends beyond the home (oikos) or the individual level. This creates the conditions for a radical democratic culture of freedom, responsibility and solidarity.
Secondly, through such emancipated (and continuously emancipating) urban territories we get to see the practical application of the right to the city (as framed by Henri Lefebvre), which goes against the current dominant authoritarian tendencies that strive at subjugating our shared spaces to the doctrine of economic growth and capitalist speculation. The latter paradigm is continuously trying to turn entire areas into urban deserts – that is, areas deprived of neighborly relations, which serve narrow purposes like the needs of the tourist industrial machine. In such cases, as can be seen in areas of Athens and other cities around the world, the motive of profit-making is what determines the purpose of each piece of urban fabric. The communities that try to democratize their neighborhoods, on the other hand, can be seen as spaces-as-thresholds, to use Stavros Stavrides’ term, that acquire a dubious, precarious perhaps but also virus-like existance: they become active catalysts in processes of re-appropriating the city as commons.
It is important that the emancipation of urban territories rests on the following conditions that can ensure their long-term democratic functioning:
a) Instauration of grassroots decision-making bodies: the creation of institutions (like public assemblies) that allow to all the inhabitants from a given urban area to participate in its management. This provides the political means for the equal distribution of power among all community members. In the absence of such institutions, on the other hand, preconditions are created for the emergence of oligarchic attitudes that use potential power vacuum to enforce their domination. If such institutions endure and manage to gain enough social recognition, then their legal recognition should be seeked, in order to cement their status as the highest decision-making body at neighborhood level, thus replacing the dominant bureaucratic structures.
b) Connection with other struggles, movements, communities: such experiments of urban emancipation must constantly seek to link their experience with other popular autonomous tendencies. In this way, they will not only use democratic processes in their day-to-day functioning, but will also aim at instaurating direct democracy as a holistic political project for radical transformation on society-wide scale. Just as the gated communities of the super-rich are linked to the current mechanisms that advance the deepening of power discrepancies, so must the self-managed urban territories seek to connect to all these social efforts that fight for the inclusion of the greatest possible amount of people in the decision-making that determines the future of our societies.
c) achieving recognition of a different type of housing: inhabitants undertaking directly the management of a given urban territory is the nucleus of a non-market, non-bureaucratic based system of residence. There is a real potential for housing that is determined by human needs and desires, a genuine Right to the City. It is of great importance that a legal framework is developed that keeps given neighborhood or complex outside the rules of capital and statecraft, as was done by some of the examples below.
This is a general framework drawn from real-life experiences of the Right to the City. There are many examples in cities around the world where the residents have made bold steps towards the reclamation of their neighborhoods, infusing them with values of commoning, solidarity, and direct democracy. Here are but a few notable cases.
Milton Parc in Montreal
The case of the neighborhood Milton Parc, located at the heart of Montreal, is a particularly relevant case. In the 1970s its inhabitants began a struggle against a major speculator who bought, over a number of years, a six-block area in the downtown of the city. The latter wanted to demolish the whole area and to build the so-called “city of the 21st century”.
The inhabitants managed, over eleven-year period of squatting, demonstrating, and holding information campaigns, to save the neighborhood. But they did not only preserve it – they have managed to institute a radically different model of self-management and housing, that emerged amid the decades of struggle. They created the largest nonprofit cooperative housing project in North America, consisting of 642 housing units with over a thousand residents being democratic participants in the project. Now assemblies of many hundreds of people decide upon the planning of their environment, of the use of green spaces, of issues of traffic circulation, of quality of housing and so on and so forth. All of that was made possible by the development of a sense of democratic citizenship and participation, as well as by the instauration of grassroots institutions.
Furthermore, the neighbors own the land in common. There’s no private ownership and therefore there’s no speculation, making it impossible to buy and sell property within the six-block area.
The community of Milton Parc has set an example of what people power can do but did not stop there. Instead, they continued pushing for emancipation of urban areas in their city and abroad. They have established the Urban Ecology Center in the heart of the Milton Parc area, through which they attempt to further develop and spread the ideas, on which their project is based. The community has also pushed the city administration to adopt the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, which recognizes the human rights that citizens have within their own city: rights in the area of housing, of transportation, of democratic participation, of water, of culture, of social activities, of environmental policies. An achievement that has now been celebrated even by UNESCO. Since then the community of Milton Parc has worked with citizen initiatives and local administrations in Mexico City, in Gwangju, and other cities throughout the world, for the introduction of such charters there as well.
Acapatzingo in Mexico City
Acapatzingo is a housing cooperative that consists of eight hectares of homes and common spaces, inhabited by 596 resident families. Since 1990s, an urban community in a self-built neighborhood in Mexico City struggled to obtain the resources necessary for the construction of their houses. They began with squatting the land, followed by marches, sit-ins, and other means for exercising pressure on the authorities, and eventually managed to buy it by the early 2000s and build permanent housing. Author Raúl Zibechi has called Acapatzingo “the best urban experience in Latin America”.
This neighborhood is managed through grassroots institutions of self-management. The inhabitants are organized into commissions and brigades that regulate the functioning of the community, without the need for authorities, along the following lines: science, culture and political training.
It was through such public deliberation and collective decision-making, that this urban community managed to install the drainage, water and electricity services. All these were set up and are since managed by the inhabitants themselves via commissions. Police is not allowed in the neighborhood, and instead a vigilance commission, consisted and controlled by the residents, looks after the security of and within the community.
Nowadays, the community of Acapatzingo is affiliated with the Organización Popular Francisco Villa de Izquierda Independiente (OPFVII). This organization has self-constructed nine other communities in which a total of 3,000 people live, all in the southeast of Mexico City. The OPFVII is distinct from most urban popular social movement organizations in Mexico City in its absolute commitment to organizational autonomy outside of the State. Thus, it is evident that the people of Acapatzingo are not only interested in the preservation of their neighborhood, but in the replication of its self-management through the city and beyond.
Prosfygika in Athens
The eight-building complex of Prosfygika, located in the center of the city of Athens, was built in 1933 for housing refugees coming from Asia Minor. With the passage of time it became a vibrant neighbourhood with communal characteristics. Today, it is one of the biggest building complexes in the center of Athens, which has successfully resisted gentrification and has remained, to a significant degree, outside the reach of big investors or the state.
While some of its 228 apartments are still inhabited by descendants of the Asia Minor refugees, many of the emptied ones were squatted. Some of these new residents were political militants who decided to organize the neighborhood. In 2010 they initiated the Community of Squatted Prosfygika, having as its central decision-making political organ the Assembly of Squatted Prosfygika (SY.KA.PRO.). A communal decision-making body for everyday life and political struggle.
10 years later, the result of this initiative is that the project is a politically unified neighborhood, with numerous squatted apartments, autonomous communal structures like Children House, Women’s Cafe, Bakery, clothing workshop, food and health structures covering the needs of dozens of people, families, migrants, economic and political refugees, of whom many are without papers, old, sick or very poor.
The community has at the same time a constant participation in social struggles and upholds a revolutionary perspective. On local level they have been supporting political prisoners, student movements, and other squatted spaces. Moreover, on international level, people from the Prosfygika have travelled to support the social revolution of the Kurdish Freedom Movement known as “Rojava”, where one of its members, Haukur Hilmarsson “Spark”, became a martyr. It is this internationalist perspective and solidarity that entails the community to host Turkish and Kurdish revolutionary organizations and their political refugees in the structures of the neighborhood. They have also participated in solidarity campaigns abroad, with the most prominent example that of Rigaer94 in Berlin.
 Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), p238.
 Harkavy and Benson: “De-Platonizing and Democratizing Education as the Bases of Service Learning” in Service Learning Vol.73 (Spring, 1998), p17.
 John Dewey: “The School as a Social Center” in The Elementary School Teacher
Vol.3, No.2 (October, 1902), p84.
 Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p147. (Available online at http://www.notbored.org/cornelius-castoriadis.html)
 Murray Bookchin: “Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview” in Green Perspectives No.24 (October, 1991).
 Stavros Stavrides: Common Space: The City as Commons (London: Zed Books, 2016), p56.